Managing Project Starship

Dr. Mae Jemison, Principal of the 100 Year Starship project (and former astronaut), was asked by New York Times columnist, Dennis Overbye, if she would go on a lifetime voyage to the stars.  She said “Yeah” adding that “It makes a difference who goes with you.”  To make the long voyage, she says that “We will bring our culture along with us.”

starshipThe 100 Year Starship project ( was established recently by a group of stellar people to imagine and plan a real trip to the stars.  After all, imagining, planning, and completing our trip to the moon triggered research and implementation of television, the Internet, satellite communication, revolutionary medical procedures, and even cultural movements that have changed our lives.  Once started, the trip to the moon and back was completed in a matter of days.  The 100 Year Starship project is imagining a trip that will take a generation or more.  Reading about it, the thing that jumped out at me was not that the project has to find amazing technological breakthroughs; it’s that they have to figure out how people on such a trip can live and work together productively.  They have to think about (from

  • Water: How will we store and recycle our most vital resource?
  • Food: How will we grow, store, and secure food in deep space?
  • Energy: When rocket fuel becomes a thing of the past, what will replace it?
  • Equipment: What if a machine breaks down and the nearest spare parts shop is light-years away? We’ll need self-renewing and self-correcting machines for interstellar travel.
  • Knowledge: What knowledge will the population on board need, what will they learn and how will we exchange information between the starship and earth?
  • Raw Materials: The future ship will need to have an abundance of raw materials and/or a means to harvest them.
  • Entertainment: Space is big, dark, and lonely. How will spacefarers spend their time?
  • Culture: What art, films, and technologies will accompany future humans to another star? What new cultures will be created and must be accommodated on the journey?
  • Government: Government is a necessary tool for keeping order on earth and far, far away from it. We’ll need international cooperation. What new treaties and issues will arise? Will we represent ourselves according to our nationalities? Or simply by planet Earth?

Half the list is the less tangible set of considerations about how the voyagers will prosper as people individually and together while technology supports their journey.  Knowledge, entertainment, culture, and government all have to do with how the people will stay engaged and grow more capable as their mission continues.

Sometimes, we project managers with lesser ambitions (building a skyscraper or a tunnel under a bay, implementing enterprise resource planning for a large organization, or raising a family), take on projects that will last several years.  When we plan the project, do we think beyond the engineering, technology design, and development we have to complete?  What about the people involved?

The information technology projects I work with tend to be populated by two kinds of people – those whose jobs are 100% about the project and who are used to working on projects, and those whose jobs are to do services and operations that have little to do with project management even though much of their work lives are now about the project.  When these two kinds of people converge, to be successful they need to think about:

  • Knowledge:  How do the project people learn about the services and operations they will be affecting?  How to the services and operations people learn about project management?  How do they learn from one another as they go?
  • Entertainment:  Our projects can be big, dark, and lonely.  Everyone may be new either to the organization or to the new project environment.  Tasks and working relationships are new.  Time can be easily lost as people search for direction and learn how to be productive.  What discussion, learning, social interaction, and engaging events can open up the lines of communication needed for success?
  • Culture:  Any new group will develop a culture of its own.  On the big information technology projects I’m thinking about, the challenge is for the culture to be productively rooted within the broader culture of the organization it’s trying to change.  If things go right, the new project culture makes the broader organization’s culture more diverse, richer, and stronger.  If things go wrong and the project culture turns inward, the cultures can compete and conflict.  If this happens, the results are always bad for the project; and the organization tries to avoid similar invasions in the future.
  • Government:  Big projects present a governance challenge.  Decision making about the project will have to consider many groups with different roles which may overlap or conflict.  But, it has to be timely, thoughtful, and conclusive.  Just like in the 100 Year Starship, “Will we represent ourselves according to our nationalities, or simply by planet Earth?”

So, if you are on a big project, remember that it’s more than building the starship.  We have to build a culture that will help the people on the journey live long and prosper.  Make it so.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright 2013 Glenn Briskin and “The Other Side of Risk”

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